Community: Season 4 — a review

Dan Harmon, the creator of Community, was terminated by Sony Pictures Corporation at the end of the third season of the series. Possibly because of his drinking, tardiness, sleeping during work, and otherwise being a perfectionist and procrastinator at the same time, which is a difficult trick to pull off and causes a show to sometimes go over-budget, which is a cardinal sin in Hollywood.

He should have been fired, I guess, but you must make some allowances for these creative types. Harmon is very likely a genius, or at least what passes for genius in Hollywood. I listened to his Harmontown podcast, which ended last year, several years before I began watching Community. He seems to affect a tortured artist air, but it’s probably not all a con.

Among fans of the series—and, in its unique meta way, within the world of the series itself—Season 4 is known as “the gas leak year.” The majority of the show’s writing and production staff left with Harmon. Directors and executive producers Anthony and Joe Russo left to direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They’ve become somewhat successful in the MCU. It was inevitable that the show would change.

People don’t like change, in spite of what you’re told to say in a job interview. Even with Harmon at the helm, the series was growing increasingly experimental and less accessible to viewers who hadn’t been watching since the beginning. In fact, with falling ratings after the highwater mark of Season 2, the series had already been on the verge of cancellation since Season 3. A “gas leak year” was the last thing the show needed.

Specifically, what were the changes during the season that viewers didn’t like? Since the episodes were cut down to thirteen, the largely new writing staff had very little time to get into the already established Community groove. The characters all seemed slightly out-of-true. The jokes weren’t as funny, and the humor seemed to lose a sarcastic edge that I now realize is a Dan Harmon specialty.

In an episode of Entertainment Weekly‘s Binge program, Jim Rash, whose Dean Pelton had more costume changes than Diana Ross, referred to Harmon as the “beating heart” of the series. Joel McHale, Jeff Winger on the series, appeared on the same show. While both men were very diplomatic in their criticisms of Season 4, McHale added, “There are certain shows that need the person that created them to be with the show.” His examples, besides Community, included Breaking Bad, Arrested Development and The X-Files. That’s pretty good company and high praise for Community, although we have to think McHale was definitely biased.

Midway through the season, during the filming of the sixth episode, “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking,” directed by Broken Lizard’s own Jay Chandrasekhar, Chevy Chase had his infamous meltdown. Chase had reportedly been unhappy behind-the-scenes for a while, and in this particular instance, he was complaining about how racist his character, Pierce Hawthorne, was becoming. Only, Chase decided to use a dreaded racial slur to illustrate his point, which Chandrasekhar said was “political” not racist. Apparently, the slur upset cast members, and Chevy Chase ended up walking off the set. While he would return to film a few scenes and do the voice-acting for the puppet episode, this was effectively the end of Pierce Hawthorne as a character.

Now that I’ve managed to make the entire season seem like a thirteen-car trainwreck, let’s talk about the reasons I think this isn’t such a disaster of a season. Not a complete disaster, at any rate.

We still get to spend time with all of our favorite characters, even if their personalities have been altered by the gas leak. There are still moments of greatness to be found here, sometimes in scenes rather than entire episodes, but I’m trying to be a glass-half-full guy here. The new showrunners are attempting to duplicate what Harmon accomplished with the series, and seem no more interested in attracting new viewership than Harmon did. The show is still in-joke heavy and self-referential. It’s just that sometimes it feels like even the people on the inside don’t get the joke.

“Intro to Felt Surrogacy,” the ninth episode of the season, attempted to do with puppets what the series had accomplished earlier with stop-motion clay animation. I think the episode missed the mark a bit, but it demonstrated that the show’s creative staff were still willing to take risks.

“Basic Human Anatomy,” the eleventh episode, was written by actor Jim Rash. It was the show’s Freaky Friday episode, in which Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi) pretend to switch bodies so that Troy can end his relationship with Britta (Gillian Jacobs). None of the writing staff had ever seemed invested in the Troy/Britta relationship to start with, so ending it was a good idea. This episode, which risked plummeting into standard sitcom and/or Disney Channel tropes, managed to rise above the inherent silliness and become quietly effective and endearing. While this isn’t an easy task to pull off successfully, I suppose we should expect no less from an Academy Award-winning screenwriter (for The Descendents).

But, even the bright spots during the season are brought down a bit by details such as the theme of impending graduation and the dissolution of the study group. I shared Abed’s unease during the entire season, which was really beginning to feel like its last. I didn’t care for the entire “Changnesia” subplot of the season, although Ken Jeong‘s performance is equally annoying and entertaining to me.

While all of the characters seem like charicatures of themselves as the humor of the series goes broader and more shallow, the worst examples are found with Pierce, Annie (Alison Brie) and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown). Annie suddenly seems to have a crush on Jeff Winger again, even though we were already past this plot complication. I’m not defending Chevy Chase’s word choices here, but he wasn’t wrong about how Pierce was being written.

If Shirley even has a story arc in this short season, I’m having trouble figuring out what it is. She’s running a sandwich shop at Greendale now, and she invites some of the study group to attend her family Thanksgiving. Plus, she and Annie are in competition for valedictorian. That’s disconnected points on a graph, too jagged to be an arc.

As usual though, this season of Community manages to attract an impressive roster of guest stars. Malcolm McDowell has a recurring role as Professor Cornwallis. Jason Alexander, James Brolin, Adam DeVine, Fred Willard, Luke Perry, Jennie Garth, Tricia Helfer, Sara Bareilles, Natasha Leggero, and Sophie B. Hawkins also make appearances. Giancarlo Esposito returns as Pierce Hawthorne’s half-brother. And it occurs to me now that Brie Larson and Alison Brie were on-set at the same time, which is a very Community-type coincidence, if that doesn’t sound too cheesy.

This is my least-favorite season of the series so far. That said, I’m not going to tell you to skip it. It’s still Community, just a slightly skewed, misguided version of the show. A.V. Club quoted the rarely reticent Dan Harmon as describing the season as “being held down and watching your family get raped on a beach.” He later apologized for the rape comparison, but you can’t un-ring a bell. I don’t feel as strongly about this season as Dan Harmon, obviously. I thought the third season was showing a decline in quality, and this was while Harmon was at the helm. This season made that one look like an Emmy-devouring juggernaut.

Dan Harmon would return for Seasons 5 and 6. We’ve determined that his absence made a difference. Now we’ll see what effect his return will have.

Firewater’s Gas-Leak-Season Report Card: B

Jeff Winger would consider this to be an acceptable grade, maybe, but we know the series is capable of better results.

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